History professor a kid at heart

Professor Ron Crawford loves Disney. Mickey Mouse floor mats brighten the interior of his car. He takes regular trips to Disneyland. His wife described him as the classic “absent-minded professor” and said he especially likes to quote “The Lion King.” His co-workers, who also know about his Disney obsession, describe him as “Alaska’s biggest kid.”

Which makes him perfect for what he calls the “Mickey-Mouse class” he’ll teach in the fall. Crawford teaches “Studies in film history” classes, including one about Disney films. He’s taught the Disney course off and on since 1989.

He also teaches geography, another of his passions. His lecture methods for that class and others are sometimes unconventional.

“He’d come in to talk about volcanoes, and he’d bring in these models and they would explode,” UAA Dean of Students Linda Lazell said. “And he’d bring in these great videos. He would get people really interested in volcanoes or geography and they wouldn’t even realize they were learning something; they were just having fun.”

Crawford said his technique better reaches students of this generation.

“Students are more visual now than they’ve ever been,” he said. “It’s what they see, what they hear, what grabs their attention. So with geography I try to really go for the throat with some of the programs I have.”

Director of Chugiak-Eagle River Campus Dennis Clark said Crawford has a gift for relating learning to everyday experience and making it stick.

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“In (one) class I was observing, he was teaching about weather,” Clark said. “He was expecting certain kind of weather that day, and he got to talking about what makes rain, why do your ankles swell up when you fly, why do they put the little holes in the window of the airplane? That’s his special gift, being able to excite people in the classroom and help them to learn and remember it.”

Crawford said he loves to teach.

“I always felt that I wanted to share stuff with people,” Crawford said. “I’m a performer; I’m a ham. I don’t deny it.”

“Ron is a great teacher because he has passion,” former student Lori Campbell said. “Not just passion for what he teaches, but he had passion for sharing what he knew and what he loved with others.”

Crawford, now 57, has been a professor for more than 30 years. Originally from California, Crawford started teaching at Anchorage Community College in 1972 as a replacement professor. It was only supposed to be a one-year gig, but the professor he was filling in for left the state. Crawford has been teaching in Alaska ever since.

“You perform in a classroom, you manage, you steer, you share,” he said. “The old phrase in the ’70s was ‘Turn ’em on.’ I loved to turn ’em on. I also thought when I was student teaching that it was a job with some sense of continuity, a job with stability. Little did I know how true that was. It was a thing that once you were in it, you were in it.”

Crawford became an Associate Professor at University of Alaska Anchorage in 1987 when it merged with Anchorage Community College, eventually making professor emeritus right before he retired in 2002.

But he couldn’t stay away.

“Teaching is never work,” Crawford said.

Ever since he was a small child, he’s had a fascination with movies, which led him to his passion for history and geography.

“Every Saturday I would go and sit in the back row of the theater where my father worked and watch whatever was playing. That was the period of the big epics: ‘Ben Hur,’ ‘The Robe,’ ‘The 10 Commandments.’ They turned me on to history, and the area I loved was ancient Rome. It was through the movies that my interest was sparked. In one of the movies, ‘The Last Days of Pompei,’ a volcano erupts. Ah, volcanoes! Which leads into geography, which became my second interest.”

The film class he teaches developed as a result of a similar serendipity.

“The film class wasn’t planned; it just happened,” Crawford said. “I was hired to do Western Civ, and I came up with the idea at the time to introduce students to history through movies, because that’s where we get our visual ideas of what the past looked like.

“Originally I was using a film or two for Western Civ, getting out a film on ‘Julius Caesar’ or something, and someone said, ‘Why don’t you do a class on movies?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’ That class went through the roof and became one of the biggest moneymakers UAA ever had. It used to enroll 200 people, and we used to be in the Arts building in that big theater and it would be just jammed with people.”

Crawford eventually decided it would be better to pick a specific genre of film to teach: musicals, science fiction, Disney, etc. It was easier to organize the class, and the regular change in topic kept him from becoming bored with the subject matter.

Now that he’s retired, Crawford can’t teach as many courses as he used to. He’s limited to 15 credits per academic year and chooses to do a majority of his teaching only in the fall. This gives him time to play at being retired during the spring and summer just long enough to miss teaching.

“One of the things you get, it’s nothing that goes on a wall, but to be walking around town and a student from years ago will walk up to you and say, ‘I remember you, I hear all about you.’ And you say, ‘Why?’ ‘Because my kid’s in your class.’ You know you’ve left your mark. That’s an intangible, and it tells you that you did your job. To think you’ve impacted their lives in some way, shape or form, even though it’s just 15 weeks – I like that.”

His students like it too. “It was not his classes that made him such a great teacher,” Campbell said, “although his classes were my favorite. What made him a great teacher was the way he connected to his students even outside of the classroom environment.”

And if he can impact students’ lives while teaching about Disney, so much the better.

“Yes, I do believe in ‘Once Upon a Dream.’ That’s why the Disney thing; I like it. Oh, yes, it’s fantasy, I recognize that, but I think the world needs more happy endings.”